The day felt primeval as I walked up the path to the Natural History Museum with mist after the rain cooling in the air and rumbles of early morning traffic behind me. It was unnaturally quiet and still inside as I made my way past the diplodocus skeleton standing in Central Hall and down a dim corridor to start my time journey.
I was here before opening hours for a breakfast viewing of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, a temporary exhibition running from 13 February 2014 to 28 September 2014. The exhibition builds on the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain research project led by Professor Chris Stringer, the Natural History Museum’s expert on early humans and a Fellow of the Royal Society. As I work for Royal Society, I’d been lucky to be invited along.
The 13-year research project had unearthed evidence that pushed back the arrival of early humans in Britain from 500,000 years ago to 950,000 years ago. So while Homo sapiens only appeared on the scene in Britain around 40,000 years ago, the story of our ancestry begins, almost, one million years in the past. This is where the breakfast tour of the exhibition started – with the earliest glimpses of human life viewed through fossil evidence of flint tool flakes and ancient pine cones. Our guide, curator Ellen Simonssen, led us through each room – through a different time, a different climate, and a different step in our history.
In the room of the rhino butchers we were shown how our ancestors had a taste for large animals like rhino, horses and deer. But this was a time zone that they shared with other predators, ‘So holding on to a large carcass meant competing with lions and hyenas,’ said Ellen. Leaving behind one brutal existence for the next, we entered the big freeze. This zone was the Ice Age with sound effects of a desolate wind-blown landscape.
Emerging from the thaw were the Neanderthals who came to Britain around 400,000 years ago, and again 50,000 years ago. We stood with exhibits of skulls and teeth against a backdrop of painted walls and video installations – pictures and sounds opening a window into a lost world. ‘We wanted to go beyond the bones and show what these people were really like.’ The bones might not have looked like much, we were told, but they were amazing discoveries that had never been displayed together before.
Our time journey continued apace into a world that heated up and rising sea levels pushed humans out. We were now 125,000 years ago. There was not even an echo of human life here, just the sound of the waves and the roars of roaming beasts. ‘But it was quite an exciting world. Imagine hippos in the Thames, and also rhinos and elephants.’ I felt quite disappointed that Charing Cross doesn’t look like this when I get off the tube each morning.
We turned the corner as the Neanderthals returned to Britain and the first evidence of Homo sapiens was found. Two specially commissioned model reconstructions – Ned the Neanderthal and Quentin the Homo sapien – gave us a feel for how these ancient neighbours lived, as did the cannibalised remains of skulls fashioned into bowls. It was still a cold, harsh climate with humans rationalising the need to eat meat. On that note, we ended our time journey just 12,000 years after the Ice Age.
We had reached the story of modern science as curator Jenny Wong introduced us to a project that explored our genetic ancestry in more detail and put the exhibits into greater context. Scientists analysed the DNA of six well-known personalities to unearth the roots of the wider human family tree.
The exhibition had collected 200 of the most important fossil specimens and archaeological objects in Britain and woven the tapestry of our steps through time. Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story had gone far beyond the bones.
Thanks to Jonathan Tyzack and Emily Williamson at the Natural History Museum for inviting me to the breakfast viewing. I highly recommend going!
Find out more about Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story on the official website and view the fantastic films on the YouTube playlist including how the life-like early human models were made.